The Samson Zoom H4 portable recorder looks like something out of Men In Black but it's an exceptionally versatile portable recording device. During the process of reviewing this device I even encouraged a friend to purchase one for her music radio show.
Radio industry producers have long been looking for a replacement for the flawed yet ubiquitous hand-held minidisk recorder. The H4 is like many portable recording products with its hand-held size, but it is unique in how it serves the needs of several segments of portable recorder users. The recorder is obviously designed for prosumer/home recording but it has features that make it an exceptional all-around tool for radio recordings. It also is ideally suited for news conference and field interview situations.
The unit includes two built-in electret condenser microphones in an X/Y pattern for surprisingly good stereo recording. This makes it useful for crowded interview conditions where you need to reach through a crowd to hear the official making a statement. No worries about a cable to get tangled. It's incredibly easy to start a recording, as well. Essentially, press the big record button twice and you're rolling.
The LCD display is easy to read and shows the current settings and level meters.
There are two features that make this device a cut beyond a shirt-pocket recorder. For one thing, Neutrik XLR/TRS combination jacks for the external inputs make the recorder useful for news conferences and provide the ability to tie into line or mic level pool outputs. The second features is its surprisingly good battery life using two AAs. It also comes with a dc wall wart.
The unit can create recordings in several formats up to 24-bit/96 kHz WAV but also 320kb/s MP3 onto removable SD memory chips. A 2GB chip provides 380 minutes of recording. A 128MB SD chip is included.
The recorder is also designed to serve as a computer audio interface. The USB interface allows the mic or line interfaces to be used as a high-quality input to a computer for direct recording.
The recorder is specifically designed for the home recording environment. It's through this application that most of the advanced features can be found. For music recording, it can also be used as a four-track audio recorder. This mode supports stereo (tracks 1/2 or 3/4) or mono recording. This mode allows simultaneous recording on two tracks and listening on four tracks using the on-board 3.5mm headphone jack. The recording format in this mode is 44.1/16-bit WAV. The four-track controls allow level and pan adjustment of all tracks and mixdown of tracks to a stereo or mono file without manipulation with a computer, although that's certainly easy to do, as well.
Performance at a glance
Up to 24-bit/96kHz linear and 320kb/s MP3 formats
Built-in X/Y condenser mics
Combo XLR/1/4” input jacks with phantom power
Onboard studio effects
SD card memory
In the four-track mode there are a few other features I thought were useful in music applications. The internal metronome makes it simpler to lay down tracks consistently, but I particularly liked the on-board chromatic tuner. It's obviously intended as a means to tune guitar strings but it displays good readings for brass instruments and keyboard audio as well. I checked the tuning with a tuning fork. Dead on.
Interviews and more
I ran the H4 through a number of recording tests in interview, music and conference room settings. Although the microphones are electret condensers, it's not particularly good for conference settings where the subjects sit around a table. It's better suited to being pointed at the subject at reasonably close range. The on-board processing does a decent job for a news interview, but for music applications, audio editing plug-ins or external equipment would do a better job.
For radio applications, I would expect the recorder to live in a briefcase and be pulled out quickly and put to use. It comes with a drawstring bag to serve as a case but the bag isn't large enough to hold the H4 and the Patch-Adams-Nose foam windscreen. The bag is also a little flimsy. I'd like to see a zipper-style case with pockets for SD cards and other items. A digital camera case could do the job nicely, though. The unit's plastic housing is better than many portable recorders but it seems a little easy to scratch. I'd like to see an Ipod-style wrap-around case that would allow access to the inputs and controls while protecting the unit from scratches and minor bangs.
There has been a recent software revision that fixed a problem that could cause excessive modulation noise when recording MP3s using 256kb/s or VBR. It also added a function for selecting the type of host computer when using the H4 as an audio interface. This selection helps prevent waveform distortion when a sound source with little harmonic content, such as a sine wave signal, is input.
Overall the Zoom H4 is an excellent recorder for radio in that it is a good all-around radio recording device. It has excellent features for interview and news applications but is also well suited for radio station producers that work on the road or from home. This unit is becoming a great addition to my bag of recording tricks.
Thomas is vice president of engineering for Lincoln Financial Media, Atlanta.
Editor's note: Field Reports are an exclusive Radio magazine feature for radio broadcasters. Each report is prepared by well-qualified staff at a radio station, production facility or consulting company.
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